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Former Marine turned to farming and helps other vets do the same

Farm (Jennifer Beebe/Pixabay)

When Anne Devin returned to civilian life after a 27-year career in the United States Marine Corps, she was met with a question many veterans face.

What’s next?

“At one point in our life we all had the same thing in common. We said yes to our country,” said Devin, who rose to the Marine rank of colonel. “With voluntary service (since 1973), we all made the same decision. We stepped up to that line, raised our right hand, and swore to protect our country.

“When we return, it’s about having a purpose and finding our way to our next ‘Yes.’ ”

For Devin and her husband, Tim (also a retired Marine), the answer was to buy a farm in Waldo County. From the start, they envisioned that a part of their post-military career would include assisting other veterans as they transitioned to an agricultural career.

For the past year, Anne Devin has been the veteran outreach coordinator for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension AgrAbility program, which provides farmers help overcoming disabilities, both physical and emotional.

She has identified about 250 veterans or veteran spouses in Maine who are either actively farming or have indicated an interest in agriculture. Devin’s job is to help guide them to success, even if they are reticent to ask for help.

“That’s where I’m finding my sweet spot, both personally and professionally,” she said. “It’s to network with veterans and make sure they have the appropriate resources.”

Sometimes that help can be something as simple as providing an ergonomic handle to a garden tool, or adaptive steps on a tractor to help an injured vet with limited motor function.

“But it’s not so much loss of limb or amputation but depression, traumatic brain injury, PTSD – that mental health piece,” Devin said. “Things like the mental fatigue (are) very hard, and it’s hard for any farmer.”

And, as someone who served in 17 countries, including combat missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, and retired as the deputy director of the Marine Corps Force Innovation Office while stationed at the Pentagon, Col. Anne (Weinberg) Devin has the credentials to connect with the veteran population.

That connection made a difference to retired Capt. Holly Pickens, a former Army trauma nurse who worked in burn and intensive care units at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio and at the Army’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.

Pickens and her partner, Shelley Hart, grow fresh produce and raise livestock for meat on their Wabi-Sabi Homestead in Whiting. Pickens describes the Whiting area as “a food desert.” She and Hart were growing and producing good, healthy food “but we were having a hard time getting the food out to the people,” Pickens said.

Pickens kept coming back to the idea of a food truck, only to continually hear it was a bad idea. Then she met Anne Devin.

“Anne was one of the first people to say, ‘You should do that,’ ” Pickens said. “And then she got us in contact with Coastal Enterprises Inc. They help you with business plans. Then someone else backed us and it all fell into place.”

In a matter of months, Pickens and Hart were selling tacos three nights a week out of their Duende food truck in Machias, Lubec and Calais. Their rabbit-meat taco was a surprising hit.

“It’s not just the initial meeting we had, although that was really huge,” Pickens said, recalling her initial contact with Devin. “But (Devin) has stayed in contact and she has promoted us.”

From just outside the Devins’ front door, one can hear 72-acre Chase Stream Farm’s namesake waterway as it swiftly laps over a small waterfall and around boulders on the farm’s border. Attractive meat sheep graze contentedly nearby, unaware of their impending fate. In a plastic-sheathed, 96-by-30-foot growing tunnel, the Devins planted strawberries that they hope will grow through the winter. A separate building houses a commercial-grade kitchen where Anne turns her Napa cabbage and other produce into sauces and, especially kimchi, a staple in Korean cuisine.

There is a serenity and peacefulness to the land that appeals to the youngish retirees. But the couple, whom Anne, 52, describes as “still beginning novice farmers,” also quickly realized that running a farm demands an acute awareness of business finance.

That’s a message Anne is intent on getting out. She and Tim, 59, who retired as a Marine lieutenant colonel in 2003, said agriculture can be a good fit for veterans because it requires traits – flexibility, adaptability, resourcefulness, problem-solving – that are honed in military service. Also, many veterans find a return to nature and relative isolation to be calming and soothing.

“There are certainly some very romantic aspects and some very healing and therapeutic aspects” to farming, Anne Devin said, “but if you want it to be sustainable as a business and have some income, you have to view it as a business and treat it as a business.”

In late October, Devin oversaw Maine AgrAbility’s first Educate-to-Cultivate conference, a business symposium with workshops focused on cash flow, assistive technology and veteran-specific resources, as well as a panel discussion with experienced veteran farmers.

Devin is also excited about her Boots-to-Bushel program, a multi-month project that will be run at the Togus VA Medical Center in Augusta. Using the hospital’s existing 48 raised-bed gardens, Devin will oversee a twice-monthly program that will take would-be farmers through the process of soil preparation, seedling production, growing and harvesting, while also developing a business plan and marketing strategy for potential sale.

“We, and I think a lot of veterans who get into agriculture, view (it) as just another mission,” she said, “whether it’s a mission to feed your local community or a mission to be a business entrepreneur.”


© 2019 the Portland Press Herald